Author Nadene LeCheminant’s historical novel ‘The Gates of Eden’ examines polygamy and Utah history in the 1850s
Nadene LeCheminant says her great, great grandmother Mary Ann Barton Allen inspired her debut novel, “The Gates of Eden,” which is about a 15-year-old girl who became a child bride to a polygamist who was a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
Like Allen, the book’s main character Josephine Bell, lived in Victorian England before converting to the church and emigrating to the Salt Lake Valley in 1857.
LeCheminant, an author who lives in Salem, Oregon, will speak about Allen, characters of “The Gates of Eden” and sign the book at 5:30 p.m. on Friday, Sept. 20, at Dolly’s Bookstore, 510 Main St.
The idea for the novel came when LeCheminant began reading Allen’s handwritten memoir more than four years ago.
“Like Josephine, my great, great grandmother’s family heard the message from missionaries and she joined the church,” LeCheminant said. “Shortly afterwards, at age 15, she took this epic journey across the Atlantic Ocean and rode to Iowa City on a train.”
During the shuffle to find a home, Allen ended up as a second wife to a54-year-old man.
“Shortly afterwards, she was given a two-wheeled handcart,” LeCheminant said. “She put her belongings, along with 500 pounds of other supplies, into the handcart and pushed and pulled it across the country to the Salt Lake valley.”
The memoir made an impact on LeCheminant.
“I was astonished at her bravery, and I am still in awe about the hardships she underwent,” she said.
“The Gates of Eden” spans a nearly three-year period from 1856-1858, which, LeCheminant said, was one of the most “explosive, tragic and colorful periods in the history of the settlements of the West.”
“There were tens of thousands of people who came from England to Utah, and more than 200 people died on the first year of the handcart trek,” she said.
The immigrants, part of the Mormon Pioneers, wanted to find the good life, according to LeCheminant.
“The missionaries had talked about this land of abundance, a promised land where no one would go hungry,” she said. “These converts who lived in wretched poverty were looking forward to this land of abundance; but when they arrived, they experienced famine due to the (cricket) plague and desert drought.”
The hardships didn’t stop there, because shortly after they arrived in the Salt Lake Valley the Mormon Reformation began.
“This was a fiery campaign where people went door-to-door with a long list of questions and tried to ascertain whether their neighbors have sinned or lusted after their neighbors’ wives or taken irrigation water out of turn,” LeCheminant said.
The commandment of polygamy came out of the reformation, which only fanned the flames of paranoia, she said.
“At this time, the Federal Government sent the military to Utah to stamp out polygamy to rein in this wilderness prophet, who was Brigham Young,” she said. “The church members at that time had been chased from place to place, because of their beliefs, and they had thought they were safe in Utah. So, because of the rising tensions and violent rhetoric, any outsiders became enemies.”
The Utah War, which pitted the Mormon-affiliated Utah Territorial Militia against Federal Troops ran from 1857 to 1858, was one of the results of the violent rhetoric, LeCheminant said.
One of the most significant tragedies of the war was the Mountain Meadows Massacre, where Mormons killed 120 settlers who were passing through Utah.
The massacre, the reformation and the pioneer trek across the plains all play a major role in “The Gates of Eden,” so LeCheminant knew she had to be accurate.
“I read hundreds of pioneer journals, 19th century newspapers, sermons and letters,” she said. “I also looked at contemporary histories, and embarked on a bunch of experiences that would help me understand what my ancestors had gone through.”
Those experiences included walking the Mormon Trail, pulling a handcart and visiting a living history museum.
“I talked with wool spinners and weavers, butter-churners and blacksmiths,” she said. “I rode the oldest steam engine I could find and video taped it, just so I could relay the feel of it.”
The challenge for LeCheminant was sorting through those experiences and making them a believable backdrop for her story.
“This is a coming-of-age story, but it’s not an innocent coming-of-age story. It’s set against a very complicated time,” she said. “Josephine is reacting to events that are impacting her life, but my first draft was this unconnected series of historical events that had these cardboard characters in a flat storyline.”
So LeCheminant rewrote her drafts multiple times.
“It took me many drafts, over a period of three years, to get to a sense where I felt the story was breathing, and I had gotten in touch with the characters,” she said.
During the process LeCheminant also fell in love with her characters, even the antagonists.
“I really didn’t want any villains in my story, even those who committed some horrible murders,” she said. “I didn’t want a black and white novel. I wanted everyone to have a complicated story. Human beings are very complicated animals, and I wanted to tell their back stories to show why they did the things they did.”
LeCheminant also built a relationship with her great, great grandmother and the rest of her family through the process.
“I learned to appreciate her life, and I think I learned how to see my family’s history more as a living thing, rather than something I may have just read in a book,” she said.
On a bigger scope, LeCheminant came away with the realization of how much history repeats itself.
“We are also still having contentious conversations about immigrants who are trying to find a better life,” she said. “We still have this ongoing discussion about ‘us versus them.’ Mormons were chased from place to place by mobs and politicians, and when they settled in Utah, they thought they were safe. But due to violent rhetoric, the Mountain Meadows Massacre happened because the church had assigned someone else as ‘the other.’”
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